With all the horrible news coming out of Ukraine, it is hard to isolate what’s most unsettling. But the potential use of chemical weapons is right up at the top, and an issue of interest to us in the hazmat community.
In Ukraine, some of the chemical weapons talk is fueled by baseless reports in Russian state media that the United States is funding biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. The New York Times took a hard look at those claims.
Further ratcheting up the rhetoric are warnings coming from the West that Russia is considering using chemical weapons. The claim, one supported by the White House and 10 Downing Street, is that Russia has a history of making a false claim as a pretense for doing just that. Some say they plan to claim, or even stage a fake attack, chemical weapons are being used against them as justification for their own use of such weapons. Here’s the State Department’s statement on the false-flag matter.
“Now that these false claims have been made, we must remain vigilant because it is possible that Russia itself could plan chemical weapons operations under this fabrication of lies,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
Most of the world is not under immediate threat of a chemical weapons attack. However, it has been a tool used by terrorists, and so warrants a closer look.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a quick-response guide for chemical hazmat incidents. Part of the guide tries to help users determine if an event is merely a mass exposure incident or if it is one due to weapons of mass destruction. It lists different observations and ranks each as “high” or “moderate” in terms of how likely the event is to be a certain type of incident. If responders have one high observation, like having more than 10 victims down and in serious condition, they can assume the event is a mass exposure incident. Two moderate conditions, like a credible threat of attack or bomb debris, and responders can assume weapons of mass destruction are at play.
Chemical weapons fall into one of four major classes: nerve, blister, choking and blood agents. This chart, put together by MSA, does a nice job of spelling out these four classes of weapons.
For a much deeper dive into the different agents in these classes, visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Emergency Response Safety and Health Database. They have detailed descriptions of these agents, such as this one for the nerve agent VX.
And here’s a list of research articles on responding to chemical warfare releases published by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information.
In Ukraine, it is unclear how much capacity its fire and emergency services have to respond to a chemical weapons attack. Given how taxed those systems are now, it is safe to assume those services have less capabilities than they did prior to the invasion.
Also Read: Firefighting in Ukraine
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is monitoring the situation in Ukraine. OPCW was formed in 1997 when the international Chemical Weapons Convention was agreed upon. The global treaty-based organization won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 and boasts that 98% of the world’s population lives under protection of the Convention. OPCW has rapid-response capabilities and performs training and incident investigations.
Of course, the hope is that Ukrainian hazmat or the OPCW rapid-response team will not be needed for a chemical weapons attack. The hope is that this deeper look into chemical weapons turns out to be nothing more than a mental exercise — yet, one that hazmat teams outside Ukraine should participate in.